Friday, November 09, 2012

Reading group: Dubliners by James Joyce

We have always had a rule in our reading group that we don't discuss collections of short stories, initially because one of our early (now ex) members, Sarah, said (as someone who liked to sink into a good long novels) that she couldn't stand short stories. I have to say that as a short-story writer I found her comment upsetting but I was happy to go along with the decision as I felt that a good short story can take a whole evening's discussion and that any discussion by a disparate group of a whole collection of stories was most likely to be superficial.

So it was with some trepidation, I think, that Doug suggested this book, which he had always loved, assuring us that he had thought about it carefully and had decided that the cohesiveness of this particular collection would make for a good discussion after all. It turned out that he was right: we did have a good and thoughtful discussion, a main mark of that being that, unlike many of our discussions, it resulted in the adjustment of some people's perceptions, including my own.

Like Doug I have always held Dubliners to be one of my favourite books, but when I came to read it again this time (after many years) I found that I had hardly recalled the stories and, even more disturbingly, reading them this time under great pressure of time and commitments I found they blurred one into the other and I could hardly recall individual stories the day after reading them. When I bumped into Mark in the cafe some days before the meeting, I disconcertingly found myself agreeing with him that the stories were tedious, and this was the attitude with which both Mark and I arrived at the meeting. However, by the time the group had discussed the stories and reminded each other about them, both Mark and I began to engage with them, and having gone away and read several of them again since at much greater leisure, I'm glad to say they are restored to my personal canon.

By contrast to Mark and me, Doug, introducing the stories, said he had found his enthusiasm for the collection undimmed. He argued for its suitability for discussion: the fact that the stories are unified by a distinctive voice and authorial outlook and by the themes of religion, alcoholism and the ultimate hopelessness of the lives of its characters struggling in the hinterland between respectability and degradation in the economically-slumped Dublin of the early twentieth century, and by an overall structure of movement from childhood, through youth to maturity.

Jenny agreed: she had very much liked the stories (although she did, it turned out, also find it hard to remember which was which), but wondered why they are considered so groundbreaking for the time in which they were written. We talked about the fact that the stories eschew the traditional definitive resolution, and instead, in keeping with the theme of hopelessness and struggle, often end in a way that seems to leave us hanging. Even though most of the stories do in fact end on what Joyce called an 'epiphany', a moment of adjustment of perception for the reader, the meaning of that adjustment is not always clear, and the stories move towards uncertainty rather than certainty: it's a defocussing rather than a focussing, and thus a strong move away from the moral certainties of nineteenth-century fiction. (As someone put in at this point, one thing that characterises the book is that it's not moralising towards any of the fault-riven characters.) The final story, 'The Dead', as the story of maturity, presents the most obvious epiphany: Gabriel Conroy, having discovered a long-hidden truth about his wife's early past, has not only his perception of her adjusted, but also the perception of himself that both he and the reader have been nurturing all along. It is not simply, however, that in the light of his new knowledge he now sees himself 'as a ludicrous figure'; he moves on from that to a larger sense of uncertainty: 'One by one they were all becoming shades... The solid world itself ... was dissolving and dwindling... His soul swooned slowly...'

This 'defocussing' is closely linked to another Modernist aspect of the stories: the fact that they are ultimately psychologically internal and deal with the contingency of consciousness. In fact, only the first three stories are told in the first person, and the rest are cast in a third person that cannot even be said to be an intimate third, since characters are often described in an objective-realist nineteenth-century mode and their personalities and life situations authorially summed up - aspects of the book which seem indeed very old-fashioned and were I think what set Jenny wondering about the book's Modernist credentials. However, there is an engagement with the consciousness of the protagonists of these stories, taking place on an important linguistic level: the narration partakes of the inflexions and diction of the characters and thus of their psyches: one character is 'handy with the mits' and 'Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet.' As John pointed out, the characters are thus seen from both the outside and the inside, which, before I had fully re-engaged with the stories, seemed to me an inconsistency (in the group, I praised the three first-person stories as the only ones with a consistent viewpoint) but which I now see as a deliberate authorial project achieved via a complex, multi-layered prose (which would be fully developed in Ulysses). Similarly, one of my complaints in the group discussion was that there seemed to be erroneous moments of shifting viewpoint. The story, 'A Mother,' in which Mrs Kearney chaperones her accompanist daughter at a disastrously attended concert and, in spite of the clear absence of box office returns, insists on the contractual payment, is told entirely from Mrs Kearney's viewpoint until a moment when, having become more and more insistent, she is suddenly seen from outside, in fact from the viewpoint of the other characters, 'appearing' to discuss something intently with her husband. In the story 'A Little Cloud', Little Chandler is made to see the futility of his own life by a reunion with an old friend who left and made his way in Fleet Street. We are entirely with his viewpoint until, towards the end, he is trying unsuccessfully to stop his baby crying when 'a woman' comes into the room, whom, due to the objective diction, we only realise a sentence or two later is his wife and the mother of his child. Doug said - too tentatively, it seems to me now - that these were not authorial mistakes but intentional, and I now agree with him (although I'm still not sure that either actually works). In the first instance, a tension is being deliberately set up between the internal world of the protagonist and the way she is seen by others, the moment of change being perhaps the moment of 'epiphany' for the reader, and in the second instance the switch is either meant to create a similar adjustment for the reader (we see the woman in a more objective light, rather than through Little Chandler's self-centred eyes) or a sudden moment of alienation within Little Chandler's own consciousness (he suddenly sees his wife as alien to him) (or both). While the book uses realist methods to capture and critique the social circumstances of the characters - detailed physical descriptions including obsessive geographical delineations of Dublin, careful and accurate observations of characters' behaviour and lengthy colloquial dialogue - it also operates on a more Modernist symbolic level to portray the perceptions and consciousness that call into question the reality of that world, 'dissolving and dwindling' it in the symbolic snowstorm at the end of 'The Dead'.

As Jenny said, nothing much happens in the stories, there's no drama, and this is not simply because the lives of these characters are humdrum, but also, and perhaps more importantly, because the true focus of the stories is psychological and internal. Ann said she found that on that level they were dramatic, in fact. She had really liked the stories, and the episodic nature of the book as a whole, and was very glad to have been given an occasion to read it. She also found it amazingly prescient, touching as it does on paedophilia, including that in the Catholic Church ('The Sisters' and 'An Encounter') and corrupt politicians ('Ivy Day in the Committee Room'), and everyone heartily agreed. People commented on the strong criticism the book makes of the Catholic Church, and of both colonial rule and Celtic Revivalism, while, as had been noted earlier, refusing to moralise against the characters.

John commented that there were similarities between Dubliners and Trainspotting - both episodic, both set in Celtic cities and dealing with addiction. He said he felt that there was a hole in the middle of the most famous of the stories, 'The Dead', in that he didn't find it psychologically realistic that Mrs Conroy should have kept the episode from her youth so secret from her husband, but I don't think anyone else found it unreasonable, given the era of the stories. Personally, I find it perfectly organic: the point is that romance has long been worn away for the Conroys by the humdrum struggle of their lives, and it is the sudden reawakening of romance and lust in Gabriel Conway's bosom, his need to connect with his wife and his uncustomary tenderness towards her, that, ironically, unlock her emotionally and cause her to unburden herself.

Someone said that there was no humour in the book, with which I couldn't at all agree. The contrast between the realist elements and the internal, symbolic elements makes for an overall irony of tone, and I can't see how the following, for instance, isn't funny: 'The most vigorous clapping came from the four young men in the doorway who had gone away to the refreshment-room at the beginning of the piece but had come back when the piano had stopped'.  I laughed out loud with Gabriel Conroy's audience when he relates how his grandfather's horse, used to walking in a circle to drive his mill, stops on an outing to walk round and round King Billy's statue. There is course however a bitter political edge to this moment of merriment, and I do agree that the humour, residing always in the realist moments, is ultimately subsumed by the existential sadness falling like the snow 'faintly through the universe'.

There was some discussion about authorial intention. Jenny wondered how far Joyce, and authors in general, consciously set out to create the effects achieved. Could it be a question of just writing stories as they came and justifying/explaining them in retrospect? I said I felt on the whole, yes, writers write according to their temperament and outlook, see afterwards what they have done and then identify and name it, and John added that writers are also influenced by what they've read and admire, but Doug was pretty sure that as far as Joyce was concerned the whole project was approached with a very conscious political and literary intention. Of course, with most writers all of these things are operating to some degree. Joyce's own family background of reduced fortunes and Home Rule politics clearly affected his outlook, and so, in my view, would be likely to affect directly his literary stratagems, but as is well recorded it also endeared him to Ibsen with his concern with ordinary lives and led him in turn to be influenced by him, and his letters make clear that, influenced by the French Symbolists, he developed serious literary theories for his own writing.

By the end of the meeting, Mark no longer considered the stories tedious, but he maintained nevertheless that if it hadn't been for Ulysses, we would not have heard of these stories now, they would have sunk without trace. As for me, my experience of trying to rush these stories and getting nowhere, and then approaching them more circumspectly and finding them rich after all, has confirmed me in my view that, far from being the literary form suited to the rushed soundbite age, good and complex short stories need special close attention and re-reading.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here


Valerie O'Riordan said...

Excellent post, Elizabeth. I've been reading quite a bit of critical work on Dubliners recently, focusing on how the book works as a composite, or a whole, rather than simply as a group of otherwise unconnected stories. Much of the criticism mentions the paralysis of Dublin as a city, the 'archetypal Dubliner' that's created as protagonist over the course of the book, and the move towards maturity as we near the end of the text. The consensus does seem to be that Joyce very deliberately planned the book as a whole. On a personal level, it's my favourite of his works, though I've yet to read the Wake (and doubt I ever will!). Thanks for posting!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, Terence Brown points out in the intro to the latest Penguin edition that that 'paralysis' is symbolised in the character of Father Flynn in the first story, 'The Sisters' - which seems a deliberate laying out of the theme from the start.
Not sure I'll ever read FW either!

frans tassigny said...

Avec votre accord j'ai insérer en français vos infos sur mon micro dossier de 94 pages :



Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, that's fine, Frans.